Rollo & Grady Interview // Nick Crocker

Nick C

Nick Crocker has been transforming digital entertainment since serving as General Manager at Musicadium in Australia, where he wrote “9 Ways to Ride the Digital Music Wave.” Named with Native Digital co-founder Ben Johnson to Smart Company’s “2009 Hot 30 Under 30”, Nick is ND’s Managing Director. Nick and Ben launched the world’s first music blog for a major label (The In Sound From Way Out, for EMI) and collaborated with Wotnews in 2009 to track a variety of online music conversations (blogs, social networks and forums) through the blog aggregator, We Are Hunted. Nick is a regular commentator on issues relating to music, marketing and technology for publications such as Billboard, AFR and NME.


R&G: How did you get your start in music and marketing?

Nick: I ran a digital distribution company called Musicadium based on the Tunecore model, with a flat fee worldwide distribution, no royalties, no ownership in the music. My background in law and political science gave me an analytical framework so that with my passion for music and ability to write, I was given the responsibility to run a start-up. The start for me with marketing came from being at Musicadium, having a very small marketing budget, and being forced to consider, “How do I market when I’ve got no money to do it?” I’d been reading Seth Godin and realized this was an opportunity to actually live the reality of what Seth talks about and see if it works. We made a decision that rather than marketing to the world, we’d market back to our customer base and let them market for us. We did that by sending an email each week with a bunch of tips for them as to how to market themselves online. We delivered real tangible value to our customer base: things that they could go out and use that day, that hour, that minute. All of a sudden, the number of people who were coming through jumped by 1000%, just by word of mouth. We were also distributing music digitally. We’d distribute the music for the artists and then they’d come back to us and say, “Okay, well, my music’s distributed. It’s available everywhere in the world now on iTunes. What do I do now? How do I market it?” So in 2008 I wrote an eBook called – it’s a terrible name, but it’s called, “9 Ways to Ride the Digital Music Wave.” I spent a couple of weeks writing this eBook with the nine things I thought each one of the artists who was working with me needed to do to market his or herself online. We gave it away to our customers – gave it to anyone who wanted it – and put it everywhere we could. It was mildly successful and people started paying attention. Once you go that far – to write a 9000-word eBook on digital marketing and music in such a burgeoning industry – you’re probably ahead of most people. That’s basically how I became a digital music marketer.

R&G: You’re currently running Native Digital?

Nick: Yeah. I left Musicadium in October last year. As a result of that eBook and as a result of the work I was doing, I was coming into contact with a lot of people. I saw an opportunity or a gap in the market to be full-time in the digital music space – not just talking about it but actually consulting on it. My first client was EMI Australia. They said, “Come and talk to us about our digital strategy.” What came of that was a website called, The In Sound From Way Out, which is the first blog written for a major music label. After we did the site strategy, we said to them, “We’ve got a vision for this now, and we don’t want you to go and get someone else to build it, so we’ll build it for you.” Once we built it, we thought, “We know this story and we love it, so we’re going to go and tell people about it.” We came up with that concept and pushed it out. It got written up on Wired on the day it launched, which was a great boost, gave it some excellent exposure, and sort of put Native on the map in that space. That was a real thrill. The blog has also been incredibly valuable for EMI Australia, not just as an external marketing tool, but as an internal tool for people to share the stories about the music they love.

We’ve spoken in the past about the short attention span of music consumers and the need for some sort of filter to help people find music specifically suited for their individual needs or tastes. You launched the music aggregator We Are Hunted in hopes of becoming that filter.

Nick: Bob Lefsetz – and I think he said as much on your site – says that he thinks the future of music is in filtering. You’re always going to be biased to your own consumption behaviors, but the way I see music is this: I have several filters and they sit there in my Firefox bookmarks tool folder. They are Pitchfork, Stereogum, the Hype Machine, Gorilla vs. Bear, Passion of the Weiss, Hipster Runoff, and Rollo & Grady. After ten years consuming music online, I’ve broken it down. There are basically nine filters for the music that I listen to. I think that’s massive. There’s so much value in that, because there’s more music now being produced than ever before, more records or more songs being released in more ways across more platforms, and the broader that gets, the more important it gets to have accurate filters.

We Are Hunted comes from a decade of consuming music online. Over that decade I’ve refined my desires into a really clear picture. That clear picture is exactly what We Are Hunted looks like. I was on a plane, I had a sheet of paper, and I drew out those nine squares of images. That was what I wanted. I have no technical capability at all. When it comes to anything technical online, I’m just useless. I’m as useless as someone’s grandmother, but what I do have is a clear idea of how things should work and how things should look and feel and how you should interact with things. I was really lucky in that I had this concept and I took it to my business partner Ben [Johnson], who is a fantastic designer. He designed it up and then we partnered with Wotnews, who not only had this incredible development team but had an aggregation engine that they’d been developing over the last two years. I love the Hype Machine, but I wanted something that was visually driven and something that covered more of the music blogs. I felt like there wasn’t anything at this point that was ranking all the discussion that was happening online about music.

R&G: What do you think of the current state of the music industry?

Nick: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is that the current metric for measuring the state of the music industry is sales of recorded music – in particular, of CDs. If we could recontextualize the debate about the progress of the music industry and make the metric of success consumption of music, we might have a more positive spin on music. There’s been a lot of negativity around music for the last decade, and I don’t think that that’s reflected in the hearts and minds of consumers. For consumers it’s never been better, particularly for savvy consumers, ones that know how to navigate the web and find great new music. I found the Fleet Foxes cover through your website, and that song just lifted me up for a whole month. Everything is freely available. Everything is discoverable. Everyone is sharing and talking. I’m really eager to shift the perception around music right now away from, “It’s dying,” towards, “Hey, it’s flourishing, but the industry is just restructuring to catch up.” I’ve been pushing that line. You could categorize my view as the optimistic blogger view. I’ve talked to people who used to be in C-level positions at major labels, and they say, “Well, it’s all well and good for you to say that, but the biggest investors in music have been major labels over the last few decades, and if you judge the health of the industry on the basis of how much is being invested in music creation, that’s the true metric.” I’m actually in between views at the moment: I want to be more positive about the way music is going, but I am aware that if investment in music is dropping, then that can’t be a good thing.

R&G: You’ve worked with EMI and other major labels. Any thoughts you can share about your experiences?

Nick: As an outsider, I used to think music labels were the problem, and I truly don’t believe that anymore. Music labels are part of a broader ecosystem that involves artist managers, publishers, retailers, very powerful retailers, the companies that actually physically produce CDs, staff, shareholders… Music labels are just a component of this broader ecosystem, and what I’ve found overwhelmingly is that within music labels there is an understanding of the challenge, an understanding of the attitude that you need to innovate and to make change. There’s just an inability because of the way the industry is structured to really do too much. Ultimately the real driver of change will be the artists. Labels will listen to artists that want to be proactive with what they’re doing. If artists can do that, it simplifies the whole process, all the way back so that the label can talk to all the other stakeholders and say, “This artist is really behind this,” and it gives confidence to everyone else. Where the labels try to innovate, but the artist isn’t on board and management isn’t on board, it’s a much harder thing to do. Record labels have been the whipping boys for this whole music industry downfall, but that has changed now. I think there really is an openness to innovation within music labels and it’s just a matter of the structure of the surrounding industry to change and catch up before the innovation can really happen.